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Roadside from the Tour de France

by Steve McKee on July 31, 2005

It’s probably about 4 in the morning and I’m too cold to sleep anymore in the reclined seat of the rental car. At least I got a few hours of sleep after Melody and I drove through the night from Milan, interrupting for two days our sightseeing trip around Italy in order to be in the French Alps on July 12th. You see, this afternoon the Tour de France, the best and biggest bike race in the world, will come through here about an hour’s drive up the road.

If you’re among those who follow the tour on TV for its three week run you completely get why the tour is fascinating: the daily drama of each race, the strategy of each nine-man team using up its energy to keep their strongest rider fresh for the final push at the end. The individual stories of the various riders with their strengths and weaknesses. Some do well in the hills, some are “sprinters” who like the flat.

And then there’s Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor who became the most winning rider ever in this most strenuous of races. He’s an American in a sport normally dominated by Europeans. He’s going for unprecedented win number 7 and then retiring from the sport at the end of the race.

We know that to go to the race in person is to give up on the multiple views the TV coverage gives, along with its big picture narrative of that day’s race, in favor of being immersed in the reality of the event instead. We’re both excited to be doing this. Which is what you need to go many thousands of miles to watch a spectacle that is probably going to take less than a minute to go by.

Choosing exactly where and when we’d view the race involved extensive contemplation with much map reading and internet visits to study the course profiles for the various days. We decided that just outside Albertville there was the best combination of an uphill grade (that will slow the riders and allow for us to view them better) and a nearby four lane highway (that will allow for reasonable travel without traffic jambs created by spectators.)

After our night of driving and fitful sleep in our rental car, we drive through Albertville at first light. This city, which had the winter Olympics in ’92, is smaller and cuter than I imagined. In the light now we can see the mountains we’ve been driving through and they’re gorgeous. Steep slopes covered in pines with granite peaks and occasional meadows. The town shows no hint of the international sporting event due to pass through in a few hours, except for some railing barriers stacked to the side waiting for the road closures to come later as the tour nears. We take two tries to find the two lane road leading out of town that will take the riders up the “Cormet de Roseland,” the first of two major grades on today’s stage of the race.

We’re glad to see the occasional pitched tent and parked RV by the road. This is indeed it. We’ve made it. At this point now, the tour will be coming to us. An older Belgian man we meet at a turnout tells us he’s been traveling with the tour for a week now. Go further up until it steepens, he says in pretty good English. Otherwise they go by too fast.

The road is in a steep valley, but is itself not steep, so we press on for a few miles. The road finally starts uphill outside the tiny town of Beaufort. A mile or two later we choose a spot next to a couple of parked cars at a bend in the road that will provide views coming and going. In four hours or so the racers will arrive. We nap a bit, read, and sit in or alongside our car and watch more people settle in here and there along the roadside. Cars go by, and many amateur cyclists of differing skill, almost all headed uphill around the bend. We go for a walk up the road to take in the scene. French is the most heard language, but there are quite a few German-speaking fans waiting with signs in support of rider Jan Ullrich. We meet some English speakers in the form of two older couples from Britain who are laughing it up and seem happy to have a visit with us.

When there’s a lull in the passing cars we can hear birdsong in the forest. It’s exceptionally beautiful country here, the steep alpine mountains, the lush green undergrowth, the tall pine trees and dappled sunlight. Further up the road we find some of the racers’ names painted by race fans in large letters onto the road surface, a tour tradition meant to encourage the riders. It’s all so familiar seeming from our TV viewing, except of course it’s now vividly three dimensional and I can move through it at will, taking in all the little nuances however I want. I’m excited.

With less than two hours to go we know that the cyclists have left Grenoble and are somewhere out there to the north moving towards us. Back at our car, we see what was meant on the schedule by the word “caravane” which is supposed to come by about an hour before the racers: it’s a fast-moving parade of colorful and sometimes ridiculously shaped vehicles, almost all with European corporate names on the side. Music blares and girls in uniform throw trinkets and product samples from their speeding vehicles to us spectators who wave back at them, hoping for cool souvenirs. Almost like bullets these little packages fly at us or zip under our cars. A hat with a company’s name on it sails near me like a frisbee and I snag it from mid-air. A big yellow van stops to sell official “Le Tour” t-shirts. I get an official yellow tour umbrella.

Eventually the promotional traffic runs out. It’s been a good diversion. The boys should be here within fifteen minutes. What will I yell to Lance and Team Discovery? I can’t settle on anything. I’ll wing it, I decide.

Then a slow moving car with a flashing blue light comes slowly up the hill announcing things in French. Luckily one of our British friends turns out to be multi-lingual. She translates for us: Please stay to the side of the course and do not run alongside the cyclists! Another car follows and tells us in French that there is a small group of riders coming that is three minutes ahead of the main group.

Then more waiting. We discuss our picture taking strategies. I don’t want to end up watching this through a viewfinder, so I’m going to hold my digital camera out to the side and just click randomly while I take in the scene unencumbered. Then there’s the sound of hovering helicopters somewhere overhead. It must be the TV coverage and it surely means the riders are somewhere down the valley not far from us! The feeling is electric.

Then, as simple as that, some riders round the corner down the road. There are several of them, in different color jerseys. They’re moving steadily towards us. Just behind them is a throng of cars, motorcycles and vans. The riders are on us and I can see that my hopes of casually looking for my favorite riders were wildly optimistic. The slope of the road slows them somewhat, but they are on the move. I look at team names on jerseys briefly and then they are by us, our view quickly obscured by the fleet of chase vehicles.

The orange jersey of the front rider must have been Rasmussen, Lance Armstrong’s latest emerging rival. None of the blue jerseys in the group were from Lance’s Discovery team.

This means that Lance’s rival has passed and each minute of waiting is a minute he must make up to be a contender. We wait for the main group, the “peloton,” to come into view. A lot more than three minutes goes by. Finally, eight excruciating minutes later, a big bunch of cars round the corner down the hill, each one carrying an array of extra bikes on roof racks. They briefly fill up all the space and then are gone.

Soon after, riders round the corner down the hill and move towards us. There’s a whole bunch of them, more than a hundred, in a big array of day-glow colors. Today is a rare day that Lance won’t be wearing the yellow jersey of the race leader, so I scan for the blue of team Discovery Channel. There they are near the front, bunched together. The first two faces are not him, and then I’m lucky to scan the remaining helmets of the team, one of which has to be him, before they slide by. Because of this I can say yes, I saw Lance race in the tour. My plan to yell various things has been replaced by intense concentration to try and take in as much info as I can in the few seconds available. Melody lets out some whoops. A sea of riders, mostly heads down, a few standing on their pedals, move steadily by. It takes maybe fifteen seconds for this huge group to pass us. “That’s amazing,” Mel says.

There’s a gap, then a dozen or so riders and then another gap. Team cars are going by at the same pace as the riders. Then come a few individual cyclists struggling to keep up. All of us spectators, released from our spell, cheer these individual efforts. One guy, getting a water bottle handed to him by an arm protruding from his support car clenches the bottle for a solid five seconds or more before letting go and, in so doing, gets pulled up the hill by the car.

Many more cars pass and then a car with a sign saying “fin de course.” It rounds the corner up the hill and behind it is empty road. Just like that, it’s over.

It takes two minutes for us to find our English-speaking friends and say our goodbyes. When we turn around, the roadside is almost empty of people and cars. We return to our rental car, now alone in the turnout, flip a quick U-turn and head downhill where we join up with a slow moving line of cars headed into Albertville.

Within an hour we are on the highway back to Italy, but not before stopping off at a “Bar des sports” in the tiny town of St. Marie we had noticed on the way in. There we watch the final ten minutes of the race along with several scruffy young French men in the bar.

Lance is kicking butt. I needn’t have worried. The broadcast is in French of course, but we can figure out everything we needed to from the visuals. The race is finishing at some treeless high alpine location. Lance has pulled away from all but one racer. There is the usual contingent of nitwits who jump the barriers to run alongside the racers waving their arms and yelling. Some guy in a superman costume briefly runs alongside Lance, right fist extended in salute. Mel lets out a big laugh. “That’s perfect,” I say.

We watch for awhile after the race ends even though it’s mostly just French announcers talking and we’re clueless. Then there’s Lance being interviewed and answering in very passable French, or so it seems to me. He’s reaching for some word and reverts to English “. . . tough” he says, and then returns to French.

We pay our tab, go outside, call home, and then make our decision to head back to Italy. We could have another day following this marvelous circus that is the Tour de France, and have it very easily, just by making a right turn a few miles up the road at something called the “Col de Galibier” but, with some reluctance, decide to press on. Venice awaits, and there’s hotel reservations to be honored. Was the big trip to France worth it? Yes. All that travel for the few seconds? Yes. We’re going to do something a lot like this someday when we take the family to Florida to watch a space shuttle launch. I also want to see a full solar eclipse somewhere on Earth before I pass. It’s the adventure of it all. Yes, it’s worth it.

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